Thai Actress: ‘The Cause of Refugees Deserves Wider Attention’

By Saw Yan Naing 14 March 2016

Well-known Thai actress and model Priya “Pu” Suandokmai has joined a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) fundraising project that highlights the plight of Burma’s displaced in Thailand. The campaign, called “Namjai (Generosity) for Refugees,” aims to assist over 100,000 Burmese refugees currently living in nine camps on the Thai-Burma border. The Irrawaddy’s Saw Yan Naing interviewed Pu about her interest in refugee issues and how she became involved in the UNHCR’s project in Thailand.

What made you want to join the UNHCR’s ‘Namjai for Refugees’ campaign?

I have known the UNHCR for two years now. It started when I read the news about refugees’ situation globally. I felt a lot of compassion for them—I only wish to help them better their lives. The traumatic experiences they have faced are incredibly sad, and as humans we need to help one another. That’s why I Googled organizations that were taking care of refugees and the UNHCR came up, so I decided to email them.

Since then, I have joined UNHCR activities like charity fashion shows and a campaign promoting [awareness of] refugee children with disabilities. So when they proposed a new initiative to raise funds for refugees from Myanmar living in Thailand, I had no hesitation about joining the campaign.

Thai actress and model Priya “Pu” Suandokmai visits a refugee family from Burma in the Mae La camp on the Thai-Burma border. (Photo: UNHCR)
Thai actress and model Priya “Pu” Suandokmai visits a refugee family from Burma in the Mae La camp on the Thai-Burma border. (Photo: UNHCR)

What is your role in the ‘Namjai for Refugees’ campaign?

Eight celebrities team up into four groups to use their talent to create artwork that will raise funds for refugees in Thailand. I asked my friend Sanshai—a designer extraordinaire—to be on my team and to design a special T-shirt that would [bring attention to] the voices of refugee women. Sanshai and I help promote the campaign through our networks and fans so that the UNHCR can receive enough funding to support refugees. When the campaign ends, we will showcase our design work and hopefully give out this special T-shirt as a token of appreciation to donors who supported our team.

How did you become interested in the plight of refugees?

Last year, I was following the news of refugees and that’s when I decided to personally contact the UNHCR. I was deeply saddened—I could no longer not take action. I feel that [because of] my position, I have the ability to make changes in the world and that is an incredible thing. I have lived a very privileged life and I have more than enough time and effort to share toward bettering [others’] lives.

What motivates you to visit Burmese refugees on the Thai border and learn about their lives?

I have always read about the refugee camps in the north of Thailand and it was an honor to have the opportunity to visit Mae La camp and meet the families there. I met the kindest people who have been through the most traumatic experiences, but have pushed through and shown bravery, strength and gratitude. After my visit, I had a better understanding of what they need and how we can help them. This was an unforgettable experience that keeps me motivated to advocate for their rights.

How did you feel after learning specifically about the challenges facing refugee women and children?

Despite the persecution and trauma that some of these people went through, they have shown me nothing but kindness and gratitude. I have been helping the UNHCR raise funds to help a boy called Johnity. Meeting him personally and seeing him improve through rehabilitation has been so heart-warming. I feel that everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion, should be entitled to human rights. Learning about the lives of the refugees has motivated me to continue my work with them.

How do you believe that your popularity can improve understanding of refugee issues among Thai audiences?

As public figures, we have the ability to make our voices and opinions heard in order to make the changes we wish to see in society. I feel if I can use my voice to make the voices of refugees heard, then together we can raise awareness. I believe people are compassionate, but sometimes what they need is more understanding.

There are still ongoing wars in northern and eastern Burma that have recently displaced thousands more refugees. What would you like to say to the parties that wage war in Burma and cause people to flee their homes?  

I’d like to talk about conflict in general. I have learned from the UNHCR that the number of refugees and people forced to flee from their homes has reached 60 million [globally], which is the highest since World War II. This is alarming and shows how urgently we need to find peace and the political will to end conflict and war. The recent development in Myanmar is promising. I hope that peaceful solutions can be found in the near future.

What are your plans for future advocacy projects?

My plan is to continue advocating for refugees’ rights both in Thailand and around the world. By engaging with the UNHCR, I realize the tremendous task this organization has to undertake. I am committed to using my reputation to make a difference in the lives of refugees through fundraising, advocacy and public relations. The cause of refugees deserves wider attention from global citizens.